I’ve got a friendship with Alec and Declan over there, having chatted a few times to commiserate over our teams’ rotten fortunes. Now, all of a sudden, both our teams are good and facing each other in the playoffs.
On that occasion, we’ve exchanged a sort of “get to know you” for the other team’s fans. My rundown of the Caps will be up on MLHS soon. For now, check Alec Brownscombe’s introductions to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Leo Komarov – The Most Interesting Man On The Leafs is fluent in five languages, a talented pianist, and an agitating presence on the ice. He has a history with Ovechkin and the two do battle every time these two teams meet (Ovechkin knocked Komarov out of the lineup last season with a questionable blindside hit). Uncle Leo is counted on for his veteran presence on a young roster and he plays an important role in all situations — PP (net front), PK, and one-third of the team’s shutdown line at 5v5.
Nazem Kadri – One of the league’s most unexpected 30-goal scorer this year, Kadri will be counted on as a veteran (by this team’s standards) who has a little bit of playoff experience and the ability to provide a “pest” element on the ice. Once seen as a defensive liability earlier in his career, he is now Babcock’s primary matchup center and takes great pride in making life hard on the league’s most talented players. He has made a killing this year scoring goals in the hard areas of the ice, particularly in the slot on the power play. If the Leafs are to have any success in this series, his ability — alongside Komarov — to get into the heads of Backstrom and Ovie will likely be a major factor.
Connor Brown – Remarkably well-rounded for a rookie, Brown has the work ethic of a player who was a late round pick in both the OHL and the NHL, overlooked due to his size and awkward skating (which is now much-improved to the point where it’s a strength). He slots in naturally as a right-handed winger on Kadri and Komarov’s shutdown line while leading the team in PK ice time many nights and contributing on the PP. A forechecking fiend, he has an understated skill set, as well, including good finishing ability.
Zach Hyman – Stapled to Auston Matthews’ hip all season long as a digger and “go get the puck” guy, Hyman is a bit of a lightning rod in Leafs Nation. He is an honest hockey player and valuable PK contributor, but his skill set is limited and sometimes lets him down when the magic of his linemates — usually Matthews and Nylander — provides him with scoring opportunities. 28 points strikes many as overwhelming given his offensive opportunities, but he does make the Leafs a heavier team.
Auston Matthews – He sucks. Don’t pay attention to him, Caps. He practically marks himself.
Affectionately called “Matts” by his teammates, he’s the first Leaf since Sundin to hit 40 and he did it as a rookie, joining only Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros among rookies 19 and under to achieve the feat in the last 30 years. A generational talent and franchise cornerstone, Matthews is a hockey-playing unicorn; a 6’2″, 215-pound center who can skate like the wind, handle the puck like a snake takes turns, and shoot as well as the game’s all-time greatest goal scorers. He can blow it past goalies from the high slot but makes a killing with his quick release below the hashmarks. He’s a superstar who is capable of changing the course of a series.
William Nylander – Willy has the ability to be an X-factor in this series. He should’ve received more Calder buzz than he did in the second half of the season, although Matthews separated himself from the rest of the pack in the final 15 games. He’s a top-40 player in point scoring since he broke the league full-time last February. The Capitals would be unwise to sleep on Willy Ny The Swedish Guy; he’s a game breaker with a shot just about as lethal as Matthews — which is incredibly high praise — and he can take over shifts easily with his speed and skill. He’s an elite power play weapon already and a huge part of the Leafs’ success with the man advantage, leading the entire league in PP pts/60. An electrifying talent.
Tyler Bozak – Many wondered what would happen to Bozak’s numbers when separated from long-time running mate Phil Kessel. Now in his second year apart, Bozak just hit a career-high 55 points and is less of a burden defensively now that he’s slotted in behind Kadri and Matthews in the pecking order. He’s centering a sheltered scoring line alongside rookie sensation Mitch Marner and long-time left-wing partner James van Riemsdyk and it is the most productive “third line” in the NHL. The line will create matchup dilemmas for Trotz and co.
James van Riemsdyk – JVR is red hot entering the playoffs with six goals in his last seven games, and he’s a player who has elevated his game in the postseason in the past. He’s thrived on a sheltered scoring line and has been less frustrating defensively in that role. A big man with soft hands, he’s one of the most skilled down-low guys in the league on the power play; he has incredible hand-eye coordination for tips and “touch” plays, in addition to his trademark “roof daddy” play where elevates the puck up and over goalies and into the top of the net in a hurry from in tight.
Mitch Marner – The speedy and creative winger dominated the OHL last season — winning regular season MVP, playoffs MVP, and Memorial Cup MVP — but concerns about his size had some wondering if he was a “tweener” player who was best suited but ineligible for the AHL. He changed everyone’s mind after just one preseason game and hit the ground running to start the regular season with a six-shot game against Ottawa in which he could’ve had a hat trick. He hasn’t really looked back, piling up 61 points in 77 games as a rookie. He’s played on the wing with two established NHL producers in Bozak and JVR all season in a sheltered scoring role, but he’s been labeled the “driver” of that line by his head coach on many occasions this season and he works hard without the puck. He’s always good for a couple of plays a game that drop your jaw — often a no-look pass right on someone’s tape through a couple of pairs of legs — and he had three separate three-assist games this season. There is some concern that he hit a bit of a rookie wall down the stretch, although he played through strep throat in March. He should scare Capitals fans in those secondary matchups. When Marner is firing at the same time as Matthews and Nylander, the Leafs turn into a lethal three-line team that can break games wide open.
Matt Martin – Martin is considered an insurance policy taken out on the team’s holy trinity of rookies. His place on the team and the need for this type of role player is always going to be a subject of debate, but Babcock swears up and down that he keeps the flies off the skilled young talent on the team and makes them stand a little taller out there. He’s also taken on the role of a father-figure who keeps the kids on the roster in check off the ice. He’s a light heavyweight pugilist who finishes his checks and he’ll no doubt have some run-ins with Tom Wilson in this series.
Brian Boyle – This man mountain was acquired at the deadline from the Lightning, who went on to finish one point behind the Leafs for the final wildcard spot. He’s helped transform the Leafs into a four-line team and added size and veteran know-how down the middle. He’s got a tonne of playoff experience under his belt on a team with very little of it elsewhere. The Leafs are hoping his leadership presence will help settle the nerves of the young guns early in the series.
Kasperi Kapanen – The fastest youngster on a very fast young team. A recent callup, he is showing a penchant for scoring key goals early in his hockey career, including the golden goal for his native Finland at the WJCs and more recently a massive tying goal against Pittsburgh in the Leafs’ playoff-clinching win — his first career NHL goal. He plays on the right wing of the fourth line and he’s an asset on the PK with his ability to cover ice so quickly.
Jake Gardiner – The type of defenceman you’re showering with praise one shift and cursing the next, the good definitely outweighs the bad with Gardiner. He is a talented puck mover and an evasive, skilled improviser with the puck. He tilts the ice in his team’s favour and faired pretty well in tougher minutes down the stretch as Babcock shook up his defence pairings. He’s also got a good point shot that Leafs fans would like to see a little more of. There is no shortage of Toronto fans who believe he’s the best defenceman on the Leafs, and there is no shortage who want him on the next plane out of town.
Nikita Zaitsev – He will not feature in game one after sustaining an apparent head injury against Columbus in the final game of the season. He was a pleasant revelation as an “old rookie” (25 years old) coming over from the KHL; he’s played tough minutes for the Leafs all year long and produced 36 points in the process. He’s an effortless skater, a solid puck-mover, he plays with an edge, and he quarterbacks a power play unit. The Leafs’ already thin blue line may be in dire straits with his absence.
Morgan Rielly – A talented young puck rusher, Rielly is still learning the defensive side of the game under the tutelage of Mike Babcock. He spent most of the season playing in top matchups at 5v5 along with increased PK time and limited PP minutes. The focus this year has been on his development without the puck. He was moved away from the top-matchup role in mid-March after a tough run in which he went -24 in 29 games through the middle portion of the season (he also battled a high-ankle sprain). Still the most talented and athletically-gifted defenceman on the Leafs roster.
Connor Carrick – The former Capital is well-liked in Toronto and may have a future here as a bottom-pairing D on the right side. He’s flirted with a top-four role at times this season on a thin Leafs blue line. He plays with an edge that belies his size and he’s a smart player who makes good reads and moves the puck reliably. He doesn’t play on either side of special teams as of yet.
Matt Hunwick – A coach’s pet for his off-ice habits, Hunwick was way overexposed in a top-pairing role last season and got off to a rough start in a more appropriate bottom-pair role this year, but he’s settled in down the stretch as a reliable veteran defender who plays a big role on the PK. He’s played with Polak almost all season and the pairing has been reliable in the d-zone and in shorthanded situations in the last few months, but the loss of Zaitsev may force Babcock to split them up in Game 1.
Roman Polak – He’s banged up entering this series but has the pain threshold of a pitbull. Many Leafs fans weren’t in love with the return of the big, bruising right-hander as a free agent this past summer, but he’s won some over down the stretch as Babcock has leaned on him in bigger, tougher minutes. He is deceptively fast in straight lines when he gets up to speed, and he doesn’t hesitate to pinch down the walls and join the cycle down low. A warning to any Capitals players protecting the puck along the walls: They apparently didn’t have Chunky Stop Signs on the back of jerseys where Polak was growing up in Ostrava. He’s a little bit like Brooks Orpik without the big contract.
Frederik Andersen – The Leafs MVP this year, Andersen faced a big workload this season in terms of games started and shots faced (second in the NHL behind Cam Talbot) and was steady as a rock outside of a rough first five starts coming off of a pre-season injury. He’ll need to steal a few for the Leafs to win this series, but he’s definitely looked up to the task. He left the game last Saturday after taking a head shot from Tom Sestito — which is a little concerning — and didn’t play Sunday, but he’s been practicing and is considered healthy and ready to go.
Big thanks to the guys at Maple Leafs Hot Stove!
Headline photo: Tom Szczerbowski
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